What is making a people?

Religions, ethnicity and politics

Note kindly translated by Anne-Marie de Grazia

The question of representations, of the founding myths on which a society is resting, comes up. We must understand what « makes a people » or at least, what allows a community to function. Potential answers are several, but they are all problematic. We are going to address here the questions of the “religious bond” and of the “ethnic bond.”

The community of the believers is not the « people ».

One may evoke religions, and more precisely the value systems carried by religions, whichever they are, as defining a basis of common culture which could constitute, or help constitute, a « people. » Then arises the question of knowing if the existence of a commonly accepted value system, that which Hayek calls « meta-values » [1], is necessary to the existence of a society. But the answer, which he brought to this question raises a problem because of his own misunderstanding of the conflicts which are born around these meta-values.

These conflicts have occupied a good part of the Middle-Ages and of the Renaissance. Just as one thought to have gotten over with them, be it at the price of Nietzsche’s « God is dead, » [2], and of a similar assessment made by Durkheim[3], we must recognize that these conflicts are towering up again in front of us. The end of the 20th century, as well as the beginning of the 21st, where distinguished, it has been often stated, by a resurgence of what is believed to be a religious sentiment, including in its extreme forms (fundamentalism), to be found in the main religions. But this “return of the religious” is a profoundly contradictory phenomenon.

There is on the one side the – respectable – desire to find a meaning in our fate, the more so that our immediate life environment may be destabilized by the consequences of « globalization.” The return of the religious is experienced in this case as a personal adventure. But there is present also, we must not deny it, the dimension of wanting to impose individual values onto the whole of society. However, the latter is resisting these attempts to impose homogeneous values because it is, itself, heterogeneous. So that individuals get themselves into a war against their own societies. Such is the beginning of fundamentalism, which is well represented in all the religions. The values, which one then pretends to be carrying are in direct conflict with the behavior of the persons carrying them. The fundamentalists of all obedience give a hateful image of the values, which they pretend to be upholding. By every act of segregation, every act of intolerance, every bomb, every act of terrorism, it is indeed the contrary of religions’ values, which is coming to the fore.

In fact, behind the apparent rise of religiosity, we are really witnessing a rise of what could be called identitarian and narcissistic assertiveness. The tensing up around food and clothing taboos, around external signs (such as the question of the veil for the Muslims), strive before anything else at brutally identifying a community, at separating it from the rest of the population and shutting it up within the boundaries of mythified references, all for the greatest benefit of a few. These practices, in producing movements in reaction to them, actually push forward the division between individuals, instead of putting an end to it. In the quest for purity, and every religion distinguishes the « pure » from an « impure, » there can be no large collective movement, except small communities in prey to the violent reactions from other communities. One means to protect oneself in this way from anomie, and one is rushing headlong into it.

But we could say just the same about what are called « secular religions » [4], a term which is in fact terribly ambiguous and deceptive. It covers up an attempt to sacralise a certain number of principles. Forgetting that secularism is a political principle and not a philosophical stance [5], even if there exists a philosophy that may draw inspiration from this principle. Here, too, behind the extravagance of the extremists, it is easy to find the same identity claims and the same narcissism than among the fundamentalists, but more often than not wrapped in a thick discourse of goody-goodism. What we are seeing then is not a rush towards the Other, but towards an assertion of the self. And one can well make out that in this race with no-holds-barred; the principles themselves are getting manipulated, instrumentalized, sacrificed, and finally lost. The famous « societal reforms », presently promoted as a substitute for social reforms by the very same who otherwise are putting their shoulder to the wheel of « cold cash payment » and market ideology [6], are being implemented while in our societies a number of fundamental rights are regressing. Rabid narcissism reveals itself at every stage of what one wants to present to us as an emancipatory struggle, and which is only a parade of the individual conveniences of some. It is not in this parade of identities disguised under the mask of the religious (or of militant atheism) that one will find a principle making it possible for populations to live together: quite the opposite.

The role of ethnicity.

Another solution could be provided, in appearance, by ethnicity. This is the domain of the fantasies of the « great replacement » (of population), but also of some disturbing realities. How can one, then, define an ethnic group? We have those who hold on to an essentially subjective vision of ethnicity, and the partisans of a so-called « objective » vision[7]. Yet it is relatively easy to show that it is not “objective” facts which bring about the constitution of an ethnic group, or of a People, but indeed political principles. This has been shown by a great anthropologist, Maurice Godelier, in his study of the Baruya[8]. He insists on the historic origin of clans and ethnic groups. An ethnical definition is not the solution to the constitution of a society: « The ethnic group constitutes a general framework for the organization of society, the domain of the principles, but the acting out of these principles occurs within a social form which one reproduces and which reproduces one, and which is the tribal form »[9]. The distinction between a “tribe” and an “ethnic group” is essential if one wants to understand how peoples constitute themselves. With the Tribe, we find ourselves engaged fully in the political forms of the organization of societies.

Yet we must make a necessary distinction between the imaginary and the  symbolic as far as the historical constitution of this social body is concerned. In the domain of the symbolic, there comes up the importance of the body in the constitution of the social subject, and more recently a distinction between the things which one sells, the things which one gives away, and the things which must be neither sold nor given but transmitted. Here we are confronted with the importance of rules, be they explicit or implicit, and be they, or not, propped up by a taboo. If symbolic rules, by way of the power of the importance conferred upon them, have indeed an objective effect (none can abstract himself without consequences from particular family bonds, nor break a taboo), their origin is purely social (establishing a domination, or organizing forms of cooperation). The existence of a particular taboo going back most often to a form of domination of a majority by a minority.

The process of autonomization in relation to the conditions of emergence and of production belongs indeed to the order of the real, and the situation created by the existence of a symbolic world overhanging the real world constitutes a constraint for all the actors. Yet, this does not prevent the fact that what is most important historically is the process of generating and producing these social rules themselves. Life in society is therefore in reality anterior to the construction of an ethnic group. An ethnic group is a social construct, [10] not a biological reality, and it is sometimes a discursive myth used in order to separate one population from another. But, these truths once restated, we find ourselves nevertheless confronted with the acquisition of the rules necessary to life in society by the new arrivals wishing to join a population. And this is where we find the border between the mythic discourse of the “great replacement” and the assessment, quite real in itself, of the failure of the integration of part of the immigrating populations, because the latter have not had references, which they could have assimilated. Integration is a process of assimilating rules and customs, which is in part conscious (one is making the effort to learn the language and the history of the society in which one wants to integrate) but it is also in part unconscious. For this unconscious mechanism to put itself into place, there must at least exist a referent. The disappearance, or the vanishing of the latter, in the name of a “multiculturalism” which designates merely a tolerance of very different practices, is a crippling obstacle to integration. In fact, just as in order to be able to exchange one must institute objects which cannot be exchanged, in order to integrate and reach a principle of tolerance among individuals, one must define very clear limits, points upon which no compromise is possible. Here too, we find the damages produced by an outrageous relativism which takes on the clothes of the social sciences in order to better subvert their teachings and to destroy their foundations.


The strength of the political bond.

The importance of the political is revealed through another term being put forward by Maurice Godelier and which is of extreme importance: the term of “tribe.” One is here confronted with a political organization, indeed considered as primitive, but which insures the resilience of the other forms. This opens up an extremely important trail. If we have not reverted to the situation described by Marx, of individuals having no more bonds between themselves than potatoes in a bag, despite having already gone through various intermediary stages, it’s indeed because there is something which continues to bind us. This thing is the State, or the political organization of society. Granted that this State is no longer what it was, or more precisely what it was believed to be, and one can criticise it abundantly. We must keep ourselves from clothing it with all the virtues and consider it, in the contrary, as a contradictory reality, an instrument of domination but also, in the same time, an instrument of organization and cooperation between humans. For, and this is the problem created by Marxist tradition which diffused largely and not without reason throughout the social sciences, the question of the State is being perceived from the historic horizon of its « withering away. » From this point of view, there is a significant convergence between libertarians, a current in which we include not only anarchists but generally Marxists of various obediences, and the radical liberals who refuse the State and fetishize the notion of individual liberty from the standpoint of the independence of individuals. Radical liberals are in reality the pure representatives of market ideology. But libertarians and radical liberals are allies in fact in a visceral rejection of the State.

Still, the idea that we obey common laws, and that these laws must, in order for them to be accepted, inscribe themselves into something else than their simple legality, the fact that we have a future in common, whatever the natural oppositions expressed about this future, remain the cement of our society. For, and from this point of view anthropology is a precious help, we know that it is out of the political that the forms of organization constructed themselves, which allowed societies to exist. Man would therefore be, fundamentally, a political animal, an animal which socialized himself in contact with his own kind. We must add that he is not alone in having achieved this [11]. But to say so, to assess that, isolated, the individual is sent back to his most brutal animality, implies that the forms taken by social organization are of some importance. In this regard, there is no opposition between animality and civilization, but the construction of a continuum of institutions civilizing individuals, sometimes in an unconscious and non-intentional manner. Let’s add that this civilization is also a process being continuously challenged, and which holds up only by way of its institutions.


[1] R. Bellamy (1994). ‘Dethroning Politics’: Liberalism, Constitutionalism and Democracy in the Thought of F. A. Hayek. British Journal of Political Science, 24, pp 419-441.

[2] Nietzche F., Le Gai Savoir, la gaya scienza, traduction de Pierre Klossowski, Folio, 1989

[3] Durkheim, É. Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Paris, PUF, (5ème édition), 2003. p. 610-611.

[4] This term was used by Vincent Peillon, who was French Minister of Education from 2012 à 2014. Peillon V., Une religion pour la République, Seuil, La Librairie du XXIe siècle, January 2010.

[5] Bodin J., Colloque entre sept sçavants qui sont de différents sentiments des secrets cachés des choses relevées, anonymous translation of Colloquium Heptaplomeres of Jean Bodin, text presented and established by François Berriot, with the collaboration of K. Davies, J. Larmat and J. Roger, Geneva, Droz, 1984, LXVIII-591. We will refer to this text as Heptaplomeres.

[6] Such as for instance the Foundation Terra Nova

[7] Simard J-J., « Autour de l’idée de nation. Appropriation symbolique, appropriation matérielle », in Nation, souveraineté et droits, Actes du IVe Colloque Interdisciplinaire de la Société de philosophie du Québec, Bellarmin, Montreal, 1980.

[8] Godelier M., « Ethnie-tribu-nation chez les Baruya de Nouvelle-Guinée», in Journal de la Société des océanistes, N°81, Tome 41, 1985. pp. 159-168. Idem, La production des grands hommes : pouvoir et domination masculine chez les Baruya de Nouvelle-Guinée, Paris, Fayard, 1982.

[9] Godelier M., « Ethnie-tribu-nation chez les Baruya de Nouvelle-Guinée», op.cit., p. 163.

[10] Isajiw W.W., « Definition of Ethnicity » in Goldstein J.E. et R. Bienvenue (edit.), Ethnicity and Ethnic relations in Canada, Butterworths, Toronto, 1980, pp. 1-11.

[11] De Wall, F. Le Singe en nous, Editions Fayard, Paris, 2006.


Jacques Sapir

Ses travaux de chercheur se sont orientés dans trois dimensions, l’étude de l’économie russe et de la transition, l’analyse des crises financières et des recherches théoriques sur les institutions économiques et les interactions entre les comportements individuels. Il a poursuivi ses recherches à partir de 2000 sur les interactions entre les régimes de change, la structuration des systèmes financiers et les instabilités macroéconomiques. Depuis 2007 il s'est impliqué dans l’analyse de la crise financière actuelle, et en particulier dans la crise de la zone Euro.

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